An Overview of the History and Meaning of the Second Amendment | Beaufort County Now | To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms and be taught how to use them.

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    "No free man shall be debarred (denied) the use of arms." - as proposed by Thomas Jefferson for Virginia's Bill of Rights, 1776

    The Federal Farmer (anti-Federalist author) in 1788: "To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms and be taught how to use them."

    Patrick Henry to the Virginia Convention to Ratify the US Constitution, in June 1788: "The great object is that every man be armed."

    The Federal Gazette, dated June 18, 1789, described James Madison's proposal for a Bill of Rights: "The people are confirmed in their right to keep and bear their private arms."

    "We have found no historical evidence that the Second Amendment applies only to members of a select militia while on active duty. All the evidence indicates that the amendment, like other parts of the Bill of Rights, applies to and protects individual Americans." - The Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit (2001)

    The Second Amendment: "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."


    The history behind the Second Amendment goes back well before the colonies were even settled. It goes back to the very history of the fore-fathers and founders of our country, the "subjects" of England who were often targeted by the King as political or religious enemies, had their firearms confiscated, often had their property stripped from them, and sometimes found themselves in jail for no reason other than they were disfavored and perhaps seen as a threat. It goes back most definitely and clearly to the history of England, the country that gave us so much of our common law, gave us the precursor to our US Bill of Rights, and gave us much of the foundation upon which we designed and crafted our Declaration of Independence, our constitutions (federal and state), and our systems of government.

    In medieval England, there was no royal army. There wasn't enough money or control to have such a formal army. Instead, the King would have to count on his subjects to fight for him - to fight for the kingdom. And so, by law, the King established a citizen militia. By law - The Militia Laws - every make subject beginning at a certain age, was required to own guns, have ammunition, be expected to know how to operate them, and show up for regular training sessions. Citizens could be called up at any time by the King to form the militia and so they always had to be in a state of readiness. Henry VIII, who reigned from 1509 - 1547, lowered the age of the males required to be trained to use guns. Under his rule, fathers were required to have their sons from age 7 and older trained in the use of firearms. "Bring them up in shooting!" was the motto.

    In other words, citizens (or "subjects"), had a DUTY to keep and bear arms.

    150 years, in 1688, this medieval "duty" to keep and bear arms became an "indubitable right." [That is, a fundamental right, an unquestioned right, a non-disputed right)


    How did this happen?

    Gun ownership transformed into a "right" during the tumultuous 17th century in England, and for understandable reasons. The transformation arose out of a conflict between King Charles I and Parliament. Remember, Parliament is the so-called "People's House." Having a "people's house" or Parliament was one of the rights the barons wanted King John to recognize in the Magna Carta - the "Great Charter." If they were to be taxed, which they often were (and which they also passed along to those below them, the tenants on their land) to fund the Kings' endless battles and wars, they wanted to have representation in those discussions and decisions.

    As it turned out, Parliament refused to tax the people to provide the funding for the wars that King Charles wanted to fight and so he disbanded the Parliament. He did so several times. He went on to tax the people directly himself, thus violating their right to representation. (Where have we heard the protest "No Taxation without Representation!" before ?) Eventually, in 1642, civil war broke out and certain members of Parliament (called a "rump" Parliament), led by Oliver Cromwell, brought charges against Charles for high treason. He was captured, tried, convicted, and beheaded on January 30, 1649. His sons, the future King Charles II and King James II had fled to France at the time.

    After Cromwell died and his son took over, rather than there being stability in England, there was mass chaos. The people, out of sheer desperation, asked Charles II to come back to England, assert his right to the throne, and rule, which he did. But what did Charles II come home to? He returned to a country that turned on his father - a country that beheaded him. He also returned to a country that was very well-armed. Almost immediately, being distrustful of his subjects, he sought to disarm them and control the bearing of arms. That is, he sought strict control on who exactly could have firearms and how many firearms they could possess. He instituted serious gun control measures, both on individuals and on manufacturers. Gun manufacturers had to report to the King how many guns they manufactured each week and who purchased them. There were controls on the importing of guns, licenses were required for subjects who needed to move weapons around the countryside, and subjects had to report if they were traveling with a firearm. In the year 1660, King Charles II issued a series of orders to disarm those citizens (subjects) that he deemed were, would be, or could be political opponents. One particular act that Parliament passed in 1662 was especially repugnant. It was the Militia Act of 1662 and it gave militia officers the power to disarm anyone they believed was likely to be an opponent of the Crown. At first, the Act was actively enforced. In 1671, Parliament passed the Game Act, which proved to be the greatest control over ownership of firearms that England ever had. The Game Act listed a whole host of weapons that were prohibited for hunting, and at the head of that list was guns !!

    Charles II died having produced no heir, and thus he was succeeded by his brother James II. King James II would use the Game Act to try to disarm all those subjects who he deemed were not well-enough off. In other words, he tried to limit gun ownership to only those of a certain social class of subjects. He sent out mass orders to confiscate firearms and to disarm the citizenry. According to the historical record, the orders were apparently not carried out. But the actions of the King to disarm his subjects certainly incited concern and fear among the people of England.

    And so finally, inn 1688, the English people had had enough. They, together with a union of Parliamentarians, invited William and Mary of Orange (Netherlands) to take over the throne and depose King James II. (Mary was the daughter of James II). The members of Parliament and the people themselves promised they would oust James and offer no resistance to William and Mary IF they agreed to sign a Bill of Rights acknowledging the rights of the people and promised to be held to that agreement lest they would forfeit the monarchy. William and Mary agreed. They sailed from Orange and were met with the support of the citizenry in what would be known as the "Bloodless Revolution" (or "Glorious Revolution"). James was forced to flee.


    A new Parliament was formed (not one loyal to James, who was still alive and still with a claim to the throne) and this new Parliament decided that a Bill of Rights was necessary to re-affirm all the essential rights asserted in the Magna Carta and all the rights that had been imperiled by James II. In order to tie the new King and Queen to an obligation to abide by these rights, the same statue that elevated William and Mary to the throne also contained those rights – the “Charter of Rights,” aka “The Charter of Ancient and Indubitable Rights,” aka, “The English Bill of Rights of 1689.” In fact, this Bill of Rights of 1689 was referred to as “The New Magna Carta.” The statute created a contractual obligation. It tied the right of the King and Queen to rule to an obligation to respect the rights contained in the Charter.

    One of those rights was the right of British subjects to have arms for their defense (self-defense) "suitable to their position and allowed by law." Actually, only Protestants were recognized to have that right. England had just gone through the Protestant Reformation.

    Arms seizure weighted heavily during the deliberations in Parliament as it drafted the Bill of Rights of 1689. So incensed that the people, in mass, had been targeted for arms confiscation under the Militia Act (and even some members of Parliament had been targeted as well), that the people and Parliament felt that the "duty" to have and bear arms was actually a RIGHT. The ability to arm oneself for self-defense is and ought to be, they reasoned, an essential right of humanity.

    Indeed, by 1688, and then enshrined in the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the duty to be armed became a right. One of the rights of Englishmen because the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense, and of course, to resist a tyrannical King or government. Never again would a lawful citizen be stripped of his firearm by the King or an act of Parliament.

    Between 1803 and 1776, the rights of Englishmen became the rights of Americans. After all, the New World was claimed by England and the colonists considered them English subjects, entitled to all the rights and protections afforded to those in England proper. In 1661, with the constant threat of hostile Indians and hostile French and Dutch settlers and traders, the colony of Virginia required all able-bodied men to have firearms and to be trained monthly in their use. Each county had its chief militia officer.

    As relations with Great Britain began to deteriorate, especially after the Boston Tea Party and then the punishing response by the King and Parliament with the Intolerable Acts (which shut down Boston Harbor, abolished the Massachusetts colonial government, installed a British General (General Gage) and his redcoats in its place, and established the Quartering Act), the colonists began to collect firearms and stockpile gunpowder and artillery. And not just in Massachusetts, but in other colonies as well. Word was spreading among the colonies of the growing tyranny by the King.

    Anyway, someone tipped off General Gage to the colonial stockpile at Concord, as well as the location of the "traitors" - those Sons of Liberty leaders, such as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, etc, who organized the infamous Boston Tea Party - which was in the town of Lexington, and on the night of April 18, 1775, he sent a column of soldiers to destroy the supplies. Their trip led them first through Lexington, where they encountered a small group of colonial militiamen. A shot went off (no one knows how it happened, or from which side), but the response was immediate. Shots rang out and an armed conflict between the mighty empire of Great Britain and Massachusetts had begun. The revolution began.

    Virginians began to stockpile their ammunition in Williamsburg, in anticipation that British troops would come to subjugate them as well. A general alarm was spreading among the colonies, fueled by great patriots like Samuel Adams and John Hancock, Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine - that the British were removing gunpowder from the public stock in order to render the colonists unable to resist the Crown.... Just as King Charles II and King James II had done to their subjects approximately 100 years earlier in England. It was this general alarm that prompted Patrick Henry to introduce resolutions at a secret meeting of the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775 at the Old St. John's Church in Richmond to raise up the militia in every country and train them as quickly as possible. He believed so strongly that this was necessary that he gave that impassioned speech we all associate with him - "I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"

    Patrick Henry's resolutions read simply:

  • "Resolved, that a well-regulated militia composed of gentlemen and yeomen is the natural strength and only security of a free government; that such a militia in this colony would forever render it unnecessary for the mother country to keep among us, for the purpose of our defense, any standing army of mercenary forces, always subversive of the quiet, and dangerous to the liberties of the people, and would obviate the pretext of taxing us for their support.
  • That the establishment of such a militia is at this time peculiarly necessary, by the state of our laws for the protection and defense of the country some of which have already expired, and others will shortly do so; and that the known remissness of government in calling us together in a legislative capacity renders it too insecure in this time of danger and distress, to rely that opportunity will be given of renewing them in General Assembly or making any provision to secure our inestimable rights and liberties from those farther violations with which they are threatened.
  • Resolved therefore, that this colony be immediately put into a posture of defense: and that Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Robert Carter Nicholas, Benjamin Harrison, Lemuel Riddick, George Washington, Adam Stephen, Andrew Lewis, William Christian, Edmund Pendleton, Thomas Jefferson and Isaac Zane, Esquires, be a committee to prepare a plan for the embodying arming and disciplining such a number of men as may be sufficient for that purpose."


    Perhaps the most rousing speech delivered in colonial America was by Patrick Henry and it was in support of these resolutions: You may have read this speech, or at least the last paragraph of it in school, but I strongly urge you to read it now in its entirety. As you do, note his references to what has been happening in Boston, in Concord and Lexington, the imposition of the retaliatory Intolerable Acts, and the threat of the redcoats moving down to Virginia and other colonies with the same intent. Also, keep in mind the mindset of our Founders... men like Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Lee, Washington who were keenly aware of the history of the people England, the continued struggle to assert their rights, to seek assurances, to have them violated, and only to have to try to re-assert them again, and again.....
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